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Joe Biden’s victory in the Florida primary was staggering, with Biden winning nearly 61 percent of the vote to Bernie Sanders’s 22 percent.
But Sanders volunteers contend that one factor isn’t getting enough attention: the Covid-19 pandemic.
While conceding that there were many moving parts, the volunteers argue that the pandemic uniquely hobbled Sanders’s grassroots approach to campaigning, citing the campaign’s heavy reliance on door-to-door canvassing, rallies, and other in-person events.
The past year of polling shows Biden hovering consistently between 30 and 40 percent, and actually dipping to within striking distance of Sanders before skyrocketing to 65 percent in the days before the election. (Sanders, on the other hand, remained stuck around 15 percent before a modest rise to the mid-20s.)
While a major part of this is likely attributable to Biden’s blowout victories in South Carolina and then on Super Tuesday—Biden’s spike in the polls registered days after his South Carolina win—the Sanders volunteers provided some compelling examples of why the coronavirus may have helped to boost Biden as well.
To get a sense of the election on the ground and how the coronavirus may have helped swing it, I visited one the cities perhaps most affected by it: Orlando, home to Disney World and Universal Studios.
What’s unusual about the Central Florida for Bernie Grassroots Office is that despite its resemblance to a formal campaign headquarters—the tiny office is crammed with printers, campaign literature, phones, yard signs—it’s entirely volunteer-run and not formally affiliated with the campaign.
“It just kind of organically grew into a space where we could work…and took on a mind of its own,” said Jim Langford, a middle-aged volunteer who works in the health care sector. The office had been his for years before he rented another and turned this one into a workspace for Sanders volunteers.
As volunteers, the staff is able to speak freely about real problems on the campaign trail—a privilege campaign staff don’t typically enjoy. And, while energetic and clearly enthusiastic about Sanders, the volunteers I spoke with appeared distressed by the impact that the epidemic would have on the primary that night. After the Sanders campaign announced that it was suspending all operations, the grassroots office followed suit.
“We hit 10,000 doors and planned to reach 20,000 but couldn’t after coronavirus,” Langford said. Behind him on a whiteboard was a drawing of a thermometer, registering 10,000 doors knocked.
“Not being able to go door-to-door has very much hindered things. I used to go canvassing every day,” said Terri Falbo, a substitute teacher.
Door-to-door canvassing was a mainstay of the campaign, which has frequently reported staggering numbers of doors knocked in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Many Sanders supporters on Twitter have a squid emoji next to their usernames, to signify going “squid mode”: knocking on so many doors, it feels like you have more than two arms.
Despite the opportunity to phone bank and text supporters using the Bern app, the volunteers said that face-to-face interactions are still a far more effective method of voter outreach.
As Paul Truman, a middle school math teacher, explained, “Canvassing is the most effective way to convert voters. Many voters don’t know that the election is happening; and then there’s the persuasion part. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to talk about politics over the phone’—this is the problem with phone banking that you don’t have with canvassing.
“When you go door-to-door, you’re pretty sure someone lives there. But a lot of times the phone numbers aren’t accurate.”
The volunteers also pointed to Sanders’s inability to do his signature rallies. Volunteers agreed that the cancellation of one hotly anticipated event in particular, an AFL-CIO presidential forum at the Disney Contemporary Resort hotel, dampened enthusiasm among supporters.
“Once everybody realized Bernie wasn’t coming, it took the wind out of our sails,” Langford said. “Turnout’s going to be suppressed.”
Truman added that the barriers to polling access will only get higher.
“Long lines, closed polling stations,” he said. “Nobody cares about it until the general when suddenly they’ll all have discovered it.”